The Exquisite Miss M: A Tribute to Judy Matheson

❉ Foster Hitchman celebrates a true icon of 1970s British cult film & TV.

Judy Matheson in Lust For A Vampire (1971).

Scream queen, brunette bombshell, and television star – Judy Matheson is one of the most versatile and gifted British actresses of the 1970s. With appearances in classic horror films (such as Twins of EvilThe Exquisite CadaverThe Flesh and Blood Show, and more), Matheson has become one of the most beloved and recognisable scream queens to reign in the history of British cinema.

Matheson’s venture into acting began in 1967 with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company. Touring across the United States, Canada, Europe, and Israel, she appeared in three Shakespeare’s plays. One of which was Measure for Measure directed by Sir Tyrone Guthrie. The theatre tour included an impressive seasonal run on Broadway.

After some small bit parts in a few film and television productions, she got her breakout role in the 1969 psychological thriller noir film, The Exquisite Cadaver. Beating out over 200 other young actresses, she played the role of Esther Casino, a suicidal ingenue who is entangled in web of self-destruction after an ill-fated romance with a married man. Starring alongside an internationally diverse cast (Capucine, Carlos Estrada, and Teresa Gimpera), Matheson is the catalyst and centrepiece of the film. Not only does she live up to being exquisite, but she portrays Esther’s descent into madness (and ultimately suicide) gradually and boldly. Matheson even gives her character dimensions, as Esther displays interests in astrology and has a natural talent for poetic expression, while also indulging in the occasional suicide attempt. 

Judy Matheson (left) with Capucine (right) in the Spanish film noir art house psychological thriller film The Exquisite Cadaver (1969).

In an era before feministic themes and anti-misogynistic undertones were taken seriously, The Exquisite Cadaver served as a unique artistic staple in this movement of female empowerment in films. Before Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct, there was The Exquisite Cadaver. Despite the film’s significance over fifty years after its theatrical release, it has yet to be remastered and upgraded with a DVD/Blu-Ray release. As of 2020, it can only be purchased on a grainy picture DVD (with a SWV watermark) from Something Weird Videos, where it is inaccurately marketed as an exploitation film.

Matheson followed with a major role in the now cult classic horror film, The Crucible of Terror, alongside Mary Maude and Mike Raven. Her next big breaks were back to back appearances in the classic Hammer Horror films Lust For A Vampire and Twins of Evil in 1971. Although her parts in these films were not as large as her previous roles, they were some of the most stirring and exciting ones.

Matheson opening the Hammer film Twins of Evil (1971). An image that has become iconic in the history of Hammer Horror.

In Twins of Evil, Matheson opens the film in a dramatic and exhilarating credits sequence where her character, the woodmans daughter, is burned at the stake after being accused of witchcraft. Simple in theory, but logistically an exceedingly difficult scene to execute (no pun intended). The process of being burned alive on screen can be a complex act to deliver without overacting and bordering on campy. But Matheson uses her Shakespearean theater background to embody intense fear and scream with soul! Even in a confining, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous set up (with real live flames and no stunt double) Matheson flawlessly executes (again, no pun intended) the opening sequence and sets the stage for the film. It is no wonder that this scene with Matheson has become so iconic and a staple within Hammer Horror films.

Shot by shot sequence of Matheson in Lust For A Vampire (1972). Any one of these frames could be equally capable of being displayed in an art gallery.

In Hammer’s Lust For A Vampire, Matheson plays a coquettish finishing school student named Amanda. Although the film has somewhat of a “cheap” title, the production value is a vision of art with picturesque cinematography, glamorous period costumes, and glorious Victorian inspired gothic sets. Unfortunately, Judy’s role is not as big as Yutte Stensgaard’s, but she uses her natural charisma to steal every frame of the film she is in. Virtually any clip or frame of Matheson in this film is a work of art. Even when she is being killed by Mircalla’s (Yutte Stensgaard) vampire bite, Judy once again manages to look exquisite even in death.

Left to right: Candace Glendenning, Judy Matheson, and Tristan Rogers in Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (1972).

Judy would further solidify her status as a scream queen in horror films such as The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) and The House That Vanished (1974) (particularly in The Flesh and Blood Show). Directed by the great Pete Walker, this slasher horror film features a distinguished cast of British scream queens (e.g. Jenny Hanley, Candace Glendenning, Luan Peters, Penny Meredith, and of course Judy Matheson). Magnificently filmed through Walker’s unique artistic vision, all these talented and beautiful actresses have their own isolated scenes and show stopping sequences.

Judy Matheson with Robin Askwith in that famous scene, furnished with irony and laughter, in Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974).

Judy’s talents were not just limited to horror films. She also starred in two cult comedy classics, Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Percy’s Progress. The first in the “Confessions” series, Judy makes a brief but hilarious appearance alongside her old pal, Robin Askwith (star of the Confessions series). In the film, Judy plays Elvie, a beautiful young lady who has succumbed to the jealous and overworked desperate housewife cliché. After striking up a conversation with the window cleaner, Tim (played by Askwith), Elvie uses him to stage a bluff of her cheating on her partner, Ronnie, in an act of retaliation. The punchline of the whole sequence is when Ronnie is ironically revealed to be an androgynous looking woman, much to the audience’s shock and surprise. Given that this film was made in the 1970s (long before LGBT rights started to be embraced by society), it makes the scene more interesting and memorable. Another layer of humour is added to the sequence when Ronnie exclaims “Elvie how could you do this to me, and with a man!”.

Poster for Percy’s Progress (1974). Matheson’s presence in the film was so captivating that she appeared on the poster twice (second from the right, and on Leigh Lawson’s left).

In Percy’s Progress, where Matheson plays an elegant escort, she undergoes a full-blown classic Hollywood glamour treatment. Previously on screen with minimal amounts of makeup in all her natural beauty, she is dolled up with bright blue eye shadow, false eye lashes, arched Joan Crawford inspired eye brows, and glossy, fuchsia-coloured lipstick (complimenting her lovely and bold modelesque features). Her trademark long straight brown hair gets waved and curled in a fashion echoing that of Veronica Lake (immaculately framing her face and elongating her neck). Although her time in the film is unfortunately limited to about ten minutes, she manages to stand out amongst a collection of beautiful women, and even the films leading star, Leigh Lawson. This is validated given the fact that she appeared twice on one of the film’s poster.

Along with films, Judy also had a large collection of quality roles in British television productions such as Coronation Street, Blake’s 7, The Professionals, The Sweeney, Citizen Smith and Crossroads. Prescribing to many of the roles she played on film, Judy often found herself playing strong willed female characters who were sexy, bold, and independent. Her most famous television roles came on two episodes of the long running drama series, Z-Cars

In her first appearance in 1976 (episode 4 of season 11 titled The Frighteners) she struts her stuff playing the younger trophy wife of an aging gangster. Her second appearance in 1978 (episode 10 of season 13 titled Rummage) saw her playing a sassy and street smart Liverpudlian exotic dancer. Both roles saw Matheson dismantling the hyper-masculine environments that her characters were in. She effortlessly used her natural feminine wiles to inhibit misogyny, take ownership of her sex appeal, and to assert her control over men instead of being objectified.

Judy Matheson with artist Rick Melton, who featured Matheson in his book Stunningly Savage: The Bloody, Erotic Art of Rick Melton. Officially solidifying her as a pop culture icon.

Although Judy retired from films in 1980, her legacy of work stayed in circulation over the years and gained new fans. As the internet came along, numerous blogs and websites fuelled interest in her work and her whereabouts. It was not long before she began attending conventions to meet fans and sign autographs. In the mid-2010s, Matheson status as a bona fide pop culture icon and scream queen was solidified when Rick Melton featured an oil illustration of her in his book Stunningly Savage: The Bloody, Erotic Art of Rick Melton. She has also recently been bestowed with the honorific nickname “The Exquisite Miss M” (a nod to her film The Exquisite Cadaver) by fans on social media.

Most recently Judy has undertaken the narration for “Mary Millington On Location”, on the new Mary Millington box set, released earlier this year by Screenbound Pictures.

❉ For more info and updates on Judy Matheson, visit her official social media pages: FACEBOOK | TWITTER

 Foster Hitchman‘s previous work includes journalism writing, radio personality, lyric video producing, social media publishing, and graphic marketing designing. In 2019 he released two independent film projects. The first was Lynne: The English Rose, which told the story and paid tribute to British actress, Lynne Frederick. The second was a three-part mini web series, Foster’s Features Interview with Julie Dawn Cole: All About Julie, where he interviewed British actress and star of the original Willy Wonka film, Julie Dawn Cole. 

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